Tag Archives: Gong Fu Cha

A Meditation on Drying Teapots

Morning comes and soft light filters through the doors and windows of my studio. Books on the shelf smell of old paper. Last night’s incense still seems to linger in the air. Cold breeze. Dew on grass. The din of crickets and morning’s traffic.

Inside the studio, stillness. Sitting with me is a small collection of objects. Teapots drying on the black-lacquered surface of my desk. Five teapots once brewed five teas. One more pot and it would feel like the six persimmons in 牧谿 法常 Mùxī Fǎcháng’s (1210?–1269?) 六柿圖 liùshì tú.

Their clay bodies now cold in the space of my studio. No longer holding the heat they once contained. Their lids, all of different shapes and sizes, cocked at angles to allow for air to flow within the caverns of their empty hollows.

On some, the stain and patina of years of brewing tea. For some, several decades now mark their skins. Some dark, some light, each telling of their age and their use and their utility.

Shapes and forms abound, each pot more different than the next. One, the shape of a concubine’s breast.

Another’s lid the form of a cow’s nose.

While most are without decoration or adornment, one carries the vignette of a bat and bamboo.

Look closely and you’ll see it has a poem on its obverse side. In this raised clay, our mind tells stories and gives itself the chance to wander.

The lone glazed pot sits in contrast to the others, blazoned in purples and pinks and what other colors came forth during its firing. When I brew from this vessel I’m reminded of the artist who gave it to me, a gift from a life that now seems far removed.

I am reminded of the dark hole I climbed out from to escape that life. How my practice in tea and the support of friends helped point the way.

Skin like that of a pear. Skin like that of leather. Like an old river stone washed and polished yet still holding onto its innate texture.

Clay and stone and vitrified sand sandwiched and pressed deep into the bodies of each pot. Green and red and brown, orange and violet. Colors and shapes, grains and grit. Cold air on cold clay and dried spent tea leaves.

A bamboo scoop, each joint a day of growth, the moving of the sun, the return of the moon.

Each node the presence of a root that once held it firm into the ground. Now pulled from its source and sitting here with me, with these five drying teapots. Time.

This is what it always had been. A meditation on drying teapots. This, too, is part of the practice. When they have all dried up, when their pores have emptied, when they finally go back to containing nothing, then they can be of use again.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea

Get Lost

Light emerges in the morning before the sun climbs over the mountain’s summit. Earth still cold from night, this is the best time to set out on the trail.

Between day and darkness, the forest feels foreboding. Where once I trusted myself, my mind now plays tricks on me in the shadows. Noises emitted from far corners echo through the knotted woods. Pathstones, once my guide, now confuse me, making me doubt the way. Steps fall shorter than they did before, second-guessing as I stumble and grope in the low soft dim of the swiftly approaching day. My ambition is to make it to the top and then some before the sun hangs high in the sky, but at this rate, I’ll settle for somewhere next to a cool cascade to abate the sting of sweat upon my brow.

Upon this compromise, I slow my pace and my heartbeats follow. What’s the use of racing one’s self? That old competition between ego and the true self has gone on long enough. Time for this, too, to take a break as I walk up the side of the mountain.

Morning birds call, rustling invisible in the fresh green canopies. Towering trees stand tall, unmoving. No breeze this Summer’s day.

The fear that gnawed at my stomach before has subsided now. My feet move more assuredly across stones in the pathway, pressing me further upward towards some undetermined destination. The crashing of water booms now before me. The small rivulet I’ve been walking beside has been traced to its source. A series of falls fades upwards against the rambling hills, cutting narrow passages through rock and wood. Moss and fern and dappled branches collect in chaotic brambles, soaked and saturated by the sparkling water.

I stand and sigh. No views from the summit today. No peering down on the thousands of villagers who occupy the river valley below. Just to sit and look within. There must be a hundred or so persons within me alone.

Set down my satchel. Unearth my worldly belongings. Unwrap the contents of my box. A cup. A pot. A measure of old leaves. A book. An antique thermos (though not antique when first purchased). I feel old, though not worn out. Just old enough to know what five decades look like. Old enough to have seen this world in a better spot. Old enough to have lived several lives in this one life and just begin to laugh.

Before I load the leaves into the little pot, I open up the book of poems by 寒山 Hán Shān and read a passage at random. Of course it’s something biting. Something melancholy. Something longing for that which has been lost but perfectly settled since life in the mountains. Never has a poet said “Get Lost!” to their readers so succinctly before than the old words of this cave-dwelling writer.

Book now closed, I toss the aged leaves into the open pot. They no longer bear the vibrant greens and opalescent blues of a fresh Taiwanese oolong, but now look like old wood, twisted and tawny from years of storage. I pour hot water into the pot and close the lid.

While my mind wants to wander, replaying the words of Hán Shān and the many stories I often regale myself with, I opt to just sit and let the sound of the mountain stream wash my ears. The loud crash of the falls quiets the rest of the world around me. The ever-present din of combustion engines subsides, though still there. The chatter of birds muted, though undoubtedly they still sing on. The regular patterns and habitual verbosity that usually keeps me in constant conversation with myself keeps on but I choose not to listen. The serenity of the forest, sitting beside the waterfall, is not without this chorus of the world, both inner and outer. It all just exists.

I pour the first of three cups of tea from the initial brew into my cup. It is light and mellow. Years from when the tea was harvested and now enjoyed have calmed the wild flavors that would normally be expressed. The tea now tastes of age. Sweet. Simpler. Softer, too.

I sit and sip, breathing out intentionally to capture the fleeting following flavors that get caught on the tongue and back of throat. “Why have I been so quiet?” I ask myself. “Why have I failed?” another voice mutters. “You used to be so prolific,” yet another voice adds. What company I have brought with me to this quiet spot. Perhaps I shall invite them to have some tea.

A second cup and third I pour. Each becoming darker and darker as the tea opens. Another steeping and I sit with the teapot, the shape reminding me of a puffed-up meditation cushion. “They collect farts,” I remember one monk saying. “Perhaps they do,” I recall thinking to myself.

I sit and try and ultimately fail to be in the now. Instead, my mind plays tricks on me and begins to spin stories of past, present, and future. Past obligations come to haunt me. Present situations arrive to tug at me. Future expectations invite themselves and don’t get the hint to leave me be. They all come to join me at this ever-growing tea gathering.

I breathe and pour out the next of three cups that are bound to come from this second steep. Golden-hued, it captures the light that filters through the forest. A cup of polished brass or untarnished bronze. A glint of sunlight. The outline of a tree painted upon its flat, reflective surface. I peer into this little world, a miniature vignette in situ.

Where does this world go when I drink the contents of this cup? Into my belly? Into my mind? Was it there before? Did these rays of light collect themselves within the concave of this cup before there was tea within it it? I bet they were there even before I sat down to idle away this moment. Why, now, are they deemed so special? Now that they have a vessel to reside within? And what to make of them once they’re gone? They’re my memory now. Will they die with me when I die or will they pass along and upon which dimension will they exist?

I don’t usually bother myself with such questions, but sometimes find myself being asked something like this by my partner at night, only to anger them by my all-to-clinical response. Who knows? Who cares? But then, who is “who”?

Each subsequent cup of tea poured is a reminder to sit down and shut up, and this time I listen. Finally there comes a minute of peace, which expands more and more as I breathe. The troubles of the world won’t go away when I sit for tea, nor will they subside when I hole myself up in this mountain crevasse next to a gushing cascade. They won’t disappear when I write about them, nor when I scorn them. In fact, they won’t ever disappear at all. They will always remain in me, in you, and in this world, and, as such, we must always work on them constantly.

Make friends with our fears and with our phobias, and invite them to tea. Let those whom you don’t understand speak up first and just listen actively. Don’t look for an answer when you yourself are lost. Get lost, and then get lost again. Learn how to disappear completely. Don’t speak, especially when you shouldn’t. Don’t write when you haven’t first determined what to say.

Words are like staccato actions. They’ll leave their mark on the world like thousands of chisel marks. To those who are privileged and think that all they produce is art, they will find their unpracticed hand produces a greater mess. Let those who are practiced make the masterpiece and learn by the examples they’ve set.

Done with my diatribe, I find myself sitting alone. Cup and pot and thermos beside me. The pulsing water falling. The leaves in the trees fluttering as they did before. Birds, calling to one another with words unintelligible.

One more pot of tea before I go. No trek to the summit. Content with halfway up the mountain. The tea leaves rise with the flood and shimmer on the surface, caught in the low light. Darkness abounds still. The morning sun hasn’t yet climbed above me or the mountain. It will be on my back as I walk down the sloping trail home.

One more poem from the poet read in silence. The last cup of tea slacked. Teaware wrapped up and packed. Tossed into my bindle and upon my back. Back down the mountain I wander. Back down to the world with all the problems. Back to where I have friends that I love. A garden that needs tending. A dog that expects to be fed. The sun finally crests over the rolling ridge and floods the river valley with light. Is this what I was waiting for?

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Filed under Ceramics, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Stop Everything

The new year has arrived and with it comes the sensation of getting older. Winter’s snow comes and goes in fits and starts, blanketing everything in the evening, melting away by the mid-afternoon. All that seems to remain is the biting cold and a still, quiet hollowness. The previous year has left me burnt out. What energy is there left to pick up the pieces of a world that lies shattered? To bind a broken nation back together again? Time has told me that regardless of which way the winds of politics or the economy or a society as a whole may go, the old habits will die hard and the work to become a more enlightened person will never be done. Exhausted, like a well-spent bonfire, all I can do now is take pause. I need to re-collect myself. I need to stop everything.

Currently, my new home presents me with a conundrum. Too cold to be outside, the makeshift tea hut in my garden remains empty, unused. Still in the process of moving, my living space is still too disorganized to encourage me to make tea. For someone who finds comfort in order, the chaos depletes me, both body and soul.

Nestled between stacks of boxes, dusty floorboards, and buckets of paint and plaster, I eek out the faintest of foothold for tea and to find a moment’s peace. To stop everything means to put down my work, to, for a moment, ignore the emails and the incessant chiming and pinging of the digital world. It is to close the door behind me. To look out onto the world outside my window, and to look inward into the world within me. The snow-covered mountains, with their bare-branched trees. The low hiss that emanates from the warming kettle. The slate-grey sky with obscured sun. The Winter of early January is an empty space, enough to let the mind wander without chance of attachment.

I dust off the top of an old wooden desk and unearth a small 仿古 fǎng gǔ-shaped 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from a tattered cardboard box.

Other items are collected too. A white 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A bamboo tea scoop, an old coin to use as a lid rest, pinchers made of aromatic wood.

No ceremony. No ritual. No pretense guides me. Absent is specific form, aside from that which facilitates ease of movement, the maintenance of heat from kettle to pot to cup, and the subtle cues that guide me to make the best cup of tea possible.

The tea, the wares, the heat of the water; these will define the space and mindset of this moment.

Items now placed atop the wooden desk, I set forth to brew the selected tea, a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”. I breathe deeply and open the pressed-metal tin that has been holding the tea for the last eight years. I carefully place the thin, wiry leaves into the concave of the bamboo tea scoop.

Their color appears darker, their surface more lacquer-like since when I first procured them years ago when I traveled to the tea gardens of 潮州 Cháozhōu.

I warm the teapot and tea cup and discard the hot water into an old Japanese 建水 kensui. I return the kettle to boil and, as I do so, I remove the tiny tea pot’s lid. Its interior is slick with residual moisture.

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

I place the tea leaves gently within the empty vessel. A void now filled to the brim. Wild, wiry, unencumbered.

I pause. The faint aroma of the old tea wafts in the air, standing out against the scent of dry cardboard, of dust, of the layers of plaster and paint that surround me. A faint reminder of its former self when it was still fresh. A faint reminder of the tea processing room that was filled with the inescapable perfume of the harvest. A faint reminder of life when tea was freely shared between friends, having traveled great distances by airplane, over subway lines and through crowded streets to enjoy the warmth of tea and each other’s company. A faint reminder of life before it was boxed-up, shipped away, and stacked in corners.

I lift the kettle from the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the teapot, over the tea leaves. Bubbles and foam surface. Oils and fragrance re-emerge, long-locked within the curled tendrils of the coiled tea.

I place the lid atop the tiny vessel and let the tea begin to steep. No sound. No movement. Just stillness. Thoughts of work and life momentarily drop away. Worries, fears, anxieties that might normally arise come and go, but I pay them no heed. All there is now is a small pot brewing tea.

I breathe and hear the rise and fall, expansion and collapse of my chest. The rustling of the cloth of my shirt. The air passing through my lips and nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. I hear the creaking of freshly-laid floorboards. Of the furnace burning. Of my partner walking down the hallway in the distance.

Stopping everything does not mean everything stops. One just becomes more aware of their presence, their true nature. A quiet observer to one’s own experience and to the oft-overlooked actions of others. The habitual mind arises as it always does, trying to cling to sounds and movement, to thoughts and distractions.

Here, the act and action of making tea becomes my guidepost. If I am to make tea, I must remain in this moment, focused on this task. I stop. I breathe. I observe the heat of the pot and rely on intuition to know what is happening within its red clay walls. The collecting and evaporating of moisture off its surface, away from the bat and bamboo motif.

The pulling of the tiny droplet of water from the tip of its curved spout. The sigh it seems to release when the tea is ready to be poured.

I quickly grasp the teapot with the fingers of my right hand and tilt it above the white glazed Korean cup. Hot tea cascades downward at an even pace, a single, unbroken stream, into the cup. Once emptied, I place the teapot back down into the center of the Yíxìng 茶船 chá chuán, its lid removed to allow the leaves to cool and the steam to rise out from the interior.

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

I lift the cup to my lips and savor the aroma. It is bright, with notes of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit. I pause and sip from the cup. As a now-aged tea, I expect it to be calm, its flavors settled and muted. However, what I receive is far from this. The tea is beautiful. The flavor, arresting. It opens with a burst of fruit notes akin to guava and papaya, followed by sweet and lingering aromatics of blossoms and gardenia. More surprisingly is the presence of a refined, velvety vanilla pod note that awakens me. These favors, which may otherwise be in contrast to one another, blend, meld, and harmonize. It is at this moment that I am reminded of why the tea is poetically named “Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”.

The tea, grown on the slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in Cháozhōu, is comprised of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove. The two tea plants, kept in close proximity, develop flavors that are uniquely their own yet beautifully balance one another. They are two yet feel as one.

As I again pour hot water into my teapot, I further recall memories from my past, reminded of that first journey taken to Cháozhōu, alongside with my own tea brothers, Steve Odell and So Han Fan. There, digging through cities and climbing up mountains in search for direction, in search for tea, we worked at a breakneck speed, not wanting to squander our time and let the opportunity to learn from direct experience pass us by. I recall early mornings, long days, and late nights, tasting cup after cup, in pursuit of knowledge and beautiful tea.

Now, at this point in my life, almost ten years since that moment, these memories, too, seem fresh. Their fragrance and flavor still resounding and surprising.

All that is left now are these leaves. A fitting tribute to time well spent. Something so fragile as a memory, so fragile as a pile of leaves. Through steeping after steeping, their flavors are expelled and spent. All that remains is a sweet, honey-like water.

Even after the tea is gone, its scent still lingers in the empty cup. As I cleanse the wares once again and return to a day of work, I can feel the pull of daily duties, the tug of responsibility and of commitments. I sit and pause for a moment longer, using this time to ponder.

Action and inaction; at times the space between them feels defined and absolute. Here, the habitual mind is inclined to prefer one over the other: one becoming a welcome respite, the other, a dreaded chore. Yet, when you stop everything, inaction is the action. Even within inaction, thoughts, memories, and sensations will still arise. Worries and anxieties still exist. As nothing truly disappears, these, too, will continue.

In the more than two decades now of practicing tea, I’ve come to recognize this. In the inaction of making tea, there is action. Worries, thoughts, memories will still be there; they can help or hinder you, encourage you or deter you, focus your gaze or leave you distracted, expand your mind or cause you to fixate and become attached.

As I wipe the chá chuán and place the lid back upon the teapot at an angle to let the tiny vessel dry, I return to the notion of form and its absence as I’ve been brewing tea. The pot is tended to in a certain way. Warmed, cleansed, utilized as if it were a fine tool to prepare the perfect cup of tea. To do this, one must focus on what is needed for that very moment and let everything else drop away.

Extraneous objects and actions are not invited to the tea table. Neither are worries or distractions. Through practice, everything is honed-down to its most essential, until all that is left is just making tea. Memory serves to guide the body in its movements, the mind in its exploration. Worry is left by the wayside. Instead, care and attentiveness come to the forefront, in service to the moment, to the task at hand, to the invited guests. Habitual fixations and attachments burn away, as time burns away, a ticking clock reflected in the diminishing flavor of every steeping, of every cup consumed, of every last leaf used up until there is no more.

All that is left is the lingering heat of the kettle, the 回甘 huí gān of the tea caught in one’s throat, and perhaps feeling of lightness that carries on into the next task. A pot left to dry.

An overturned cup revealing the name of its maker. The emptiness of Winter in early January. The sensation of getting older. Disparate flavors that harmonize.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Last of Autumn’s Leaves

Autumn has passed and Winter’s presence grows more and more each day. Morning’s light emerges later and darkness arrives over the horizon sooner than the weeks and months before. Winds whip and howl through bare trees.

The mountains, evermore, replace their vibrant pigment in exchange with varying hues of umber and shades of purple. The colors that do remain cling to branches and scatter on the forest floor. The last of Autumn’s leaves.

The lichen.

The moss.

The rich soil.

The slick cascade of water rushing from the rivers and over rocks. I spend the last of these days, where the final forces of Fall remain palpable, crawling up the edge of a waterfall to the top of a mountain.

In the foothills that mark the trailhead, one final stand of bright, golden maples eek out their last celebration for the year.

Fluttering leaves.

Filtered sunlight.

A cathedral’s nave cast from nature.

Further into the forest, the trees grow bare. Looking upward reveals a spindly network of branches, none coming too close to touch, forming empty channels between them. Bright blue rivers of sky. Birds call and sing. The swirl of the wind. The sound of the brook echoing and beckoning me deeper into the forest, further up the mountain.

As I ascend I pause to appreciate small chance-made vignettes that adorn the forest world. A gnarled old root caught in decomposition.

Two fallen tree trunks, blackened by fire.

In Winter’s cold decay, life still pulses through the forest. Springing up from the thick carpet of fallen leaves, young saplings find a foothold.

Ferns of all forms unfurl.

Moss find shelter in cracks and crevices.

On twisted roots.

Over rocks.

Halfway up the mountain, I stop to savor the rush of the cascade.

Perched on a stone boulder outcropping, I spread out a tea set kept in my side bag. A brocaded box and tea-stained linen cloth.

A small 內紫外紅 nèi zǐ wài hóng 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from the early 1980s set atop an oak leaf.

Opened, it becomes a vessel to contain the moment, a chance to pause, an opportunity to meditate in nature. No extraneous noise, just the sound of the waterfall and the wind pressing through the trees. No unnecessary thoughts, just those enough to attend to the act of making tea.

Thoughts enough to guide my hand as I place old tea leaves intro the center of the open teapot. Twisted, dark, aged leaves of an old 普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá that mirror those fallen on the path that led me to the waterfall’s edge. Red and russet and warm. Dry and leathery like a worn boot.

I pour out a measure of hot water into the open teapot and, for a moment, watch as the tea leaves roll and slowly expand. The deep blue of the sky overhead reflecting in the tiny pool of the open teapot.

I replace the lid and wait for the tea to brew.

In this moment of waiting, I observe the world around me.

The waterfall, the rocks, the forest. The cascade and the rush of water.

The pool in which it all collects and churns.

The mountain stream that ambles and coils downward.

The water, disappearing over a bend and humped back of the hillock. Water, merging with earth, with the wood of the forest, with the light caught against the leaves and the skyward stretching columns of trees.

I pour out the first of many steepings from the tiny teapot into a single cup.

The color of the brew is a deep scarlet. The aroma is rich like healthy soil. The favor is sweet and satisfying, akin to a fine wine, with a soft lingering finish that tapers off slowly until it merges and fades with the myriad of scents that define the forest.

I continue to sit and steep tea. Time passes, marked by the slow shifting of light through the trees.

The change in color of the tea’s liqueur

The expanding of the tea leaves.

One last cup and I close the pot and wrap up the small tea set to continue on my journey up the mountain. Further up the mountain, the forest thins. Yet, here, too, Winter’s blooms can be found. 

Witch Hazel flowers burst atop the knobby and twisted branches of their weathered trees.

New moss emerges from underneath desiccated leaves.

Even a fallen sycamore leaf appears new, alive, fiery against the cold earth.

Climbing higher still, I reach a mountain lake, the source of the waterfall.

Here I rest and sit for tea, spread out atop a warm, sunbaked stone.

The same tea is brewed from before.

It’s flavor seems gentler now, it’s color paler.

I let each steeping go on longer, letting the leaves soak and expel their flavor slowly.

Atop the stone, I sit with the teapot in silent mediation. The chill of Winter abated by the heat of the sun, yet its presence surrounds me. The umber and purple mountain tops rising up against the lake’s edge.

The bare branches stretching up to the sky. The cold wind that creeps between the folds in my coat. The last of Autumn’s leaves, clinging on to a season long since passed.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

As I sit in my New York City apartment for my daily tea brewing session, I sit looking out upon the treetops, grey sky, and the faint rolling outline of Manhattan’s silhouette. The soft booming of thunder peels in the distance. A storm is coming. With the windows open, I can feel the change in the atmosphere. The air grows cooler, thicker with moisture. Latent with entropy.

For a moment I meditate, giving pause as I wait for the old 鉄瓶 tetsubin to boil water for tea. Spread out before me are implements that I’ve collected over the years, each one brought forth to serve a purpose. Despite their beauty as art objects, they are worth more to me as tools, items that serve a purpose. A wide-rimmed 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) teabowl from a kiln in Fujian which I shall use as a 茶船 cháchuán.

A mid-20th century replica of a 清 Qīng period (1644-1912) 思亭壺 Sī Tíng Hú.

A jade archer’s ring which I’ve repurposed as a lid rest.

Other wares include items foreign to the Chinese tea tradition. A Japanese porcelain tea container, decorated with orchid blossoms, an image borrowed from Chinese visual culture, referring to integrity and scholarly pursuits.

An antique carved bamboo 茶合 sagō used for 煎茶道 senchadō, inscribed with a poem. A thin branch from a willow tree.

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

Each item I’ve adopted and adapted over the almost twenty years I’ve been practicing the traditional Chinese method of tea brewing known as 功夫茶 gōng fū chá.

Over these many years, I’ve come to realize through the quiet efforts of brewing tea daily in a mindful manner the meaning of this approach to making a cup of tea. To simply pour water into the cavernous hollow of a small teapot.

To warm each teacup so that the radiant heat of the water can be felt on the outer surface.

To wait until the steam rising from each vessel subsides. These are things that are learned after years of practice and observation. A skill acquired by being challenged.

I remove the lid from the porcelain tea container and slowly roll out a healthy portion of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá. Years of practice, of study under teachers, and travel to tea farms and tea markets has given me insight into this tea. Even before I know what this tea will taste like, I have a thought as to what to expect. With this knowledge, I can quickly pivot and adjust my actions once this tea is brewing in order to make the very best pot of tea I can with what I am given. The dark green side-by-side the rusty-red coloration upon each leaf hints at the level of oxidation this tea has incurred. The tightness of each curled leaf indicates the manner and method it was rolled.

A mindful tilt of the bamboo tea scoop and a gentle push by the thin willow branch aids in arranging each of the leaves into a small mound at the center of the teapot.

Leaning over to peer down into the vessel, I inhale to admire and analyze the aroma of the tea as it comes into contact with the wet interior surface of the teapot. This, too, is a sign, a means to guide my approach to brewing this tea.

Each time I take in an observation, I change my tack. These are not huge changes but subtle ones. Over time and accumulated experiences, this method has shaped not only my practice but also my mind. Rather than become more rigid in my ways and more resistant to change, I’ve become more fluid, more adaptable, more welcoming of taking chances, being challenged, open to surprises. It has brought about a real sense of joy to face these, both in tea and in life.

To say that these are challenging times we live in today would be quite an understatement. All around, people are justly fighting for their voices to be heard, for their civil rights to be recognized. The world is faced with a deadly pandemic. Our fragile earth continues to be threatened by greed, war, destruction. Faced with such dramatic changes, it is common to do what most do: avoid them, resist them, claim ignorance of these changes, shut them out and find solace in a life of ease and moments of joy. Perhaps, like the Summer storm that is now currently raging outside my window here in New York City, some may believe that these changes will subside. The turmoil will calm down. Things will go back to normal.

But as I lift my kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour hot water into the teapot, I am reminded that this does not need to be the way.

As I close the lid of the teapot and pour a drought of hot water upon it, waiting for the telltale signs that the tea is brewing, I reflect on what it takes to understand each moment.

We must be quiet to let others speak their mind and tell their story, as I must quiet my mind to truly take in the moment. I must observe the context of each time and place, as I do when I watch the heat rise from the teapot and the water dissipate from its surface, keeping in mind the temperature of the air around it, the time of day, the heat or chill of the season, and perhaps the guests and their preferences.

I have to be attentive to what might be going on from an internal level, and what external cues I can draw from, in the same way I watch the small meniscus rise.

In the same way I watch it fall down the interior of the teapot spout, indicating the movement and unfurling of the tea leaves within the teapot. And I must ask myself what I take for granted, what do I not have the ability to see, in the same way I must wonder what is going on inside the teapot.

All of this goes to further highlight certain truths. Change is a constant. Nothing remains the same forever. Each moment exists only in that moment and then it is gone, transformed into something else. Oftentimes, we have the choice to meet these changes and learn from them, or ignore them. To engage and adapt with change, or to resist it.

Tea has taught this. It has taught me patience. It has given me the ability to practice this and eventually trust in my practice. Whereas in the beginning of my life as a tea person I would have doubted and maybe even judged myself, with a litany of internal self-directed micro-aggressions telling me that I was “doing it wrong” or “I don’t know enough” or that I was “unable to do this” or “that properly”, I now have enough direct experience brewing tea to not judge myself and, instead, recognized when I feel this way and recognize that it’s okay. The tea will be fine. I will be fine.

I’ve made a lot of bitter tea in my day, even over-brewed tea. I actually enjoy this flavor now. It is the flavor of quality. In truth, an excellently-crafted tea will still taste excellent even if you over-brew it. This was something I only learned when I stopped being afraid to make mistakes and to be challenged.

As I pour out the tea from the teapot, moving from cup to cup to cup in a circular motion, I adjust my hand and the pitch of the teapot to increase or decrease the velocity of the tea liqueur coming out of it. As the liquid pours out faster, the tea has leaf time to brew, resulting in a slightly lighter steeping.

Conversely, if I slow the pour, the tea steeps a moment longer and the liqueur has a chance to become darker and more profound in flavor. This may depend on the style of tea, the manner it was finished by the tea master’s level roast or oxidation, or by the season the tea was harvested. Subtle changes to one’s practice can make all the difference.

As I shake out the final droplets of tea from the teapot and return the teapot back the center of the Sòng teabowl, I remove the lid of the pot to enable all remaining moisture and heat to escape the teapot. Experience has shown me that doing this helps to prevent unintended over-extraction of flavor through residual hot water sitting with the tea leaves.

I admire the color of the tea liqueur. It is a rich copper color, deepening at its center and becoming a light blush gold on the periphery. As I bring the first of three cups to my lips, I savor the multi-layered aromas the tea gives off. Florals like gardenias, marigolds and rose. Light incense. Toasted biscuit. As I take the first sip, I draw back it over the back of my mouth and into my cheeks, both cooling the tea and atomizing the liquid, enabling a greater sensory experience. I’ve made the tea strong. The flavors of dried apricots, marigold, rose water, and toasted walnut are pronounced. As my mouth empties, lingering flavors of cacao nibs, sweet caramel and baked apple remain.

I pause to let these flavors play out and fade before I move on to the second and third cup. Each time I sip I use the moment to meditate and observe. To open my mind rather than fixate on a particular aspect of the tea or of the time and space that I’ve found myself within. As I continue to brew the tea, steeping after steeping, I practice this mindset. I use the moment to explore the tea and it’s flavors, as I also use the moment to explore my mind and the many sensations that arise.

As I’ve said before, these are challenging times. We might find ourselves up against some very intense situations. Ourselves, as well as our friends and family may be affected by the many upheavals that have come. How to give space to each so that we can explore these moments together and individually is important to foster true learning and awakening. This is core to being compassionate. How we can practice this in our own practice of tea can be a beautiful first step.

Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition Thích Nhất Hạnh discusses this form of practice in his 2002 book “Anger”. What he describes as “knots of anger” are “blocks of pain, anger, and frustration“. Over time, these knots can tie us up and obstruct our freedom to learn, to be open-minded, and be able to communicate with others and ourselves. If we practice aggression towards others or ourselves, these becomes trained. Like brewing an excellent cup of tea, we can become excellent at being angry, at harming others, at denying their freedoms and our own.

However, one can practice the opposite. One can practice love, compassion and empathy. Much like how one brews tea, changing one’s habitual mind takes patience, presence, observation. It requires breathing and practicing a capacity of awareness that includes listening to both body and mind, material and environment. In the same way we can learn from the tea that we’ve over-steeped, we can learn from our anger, our sadness, and our frustration. We can still love a bitter brew in the same way we can still love ourselves and others despite how we fee about them or they about us. This needn’t become a block to our freedom. Rather, it can become the way forward.

As I finish the final cup of tea, I begin the processes of cleaning the equipage. The cups are cleansed once again and placed together.

So, too, are the wooden trivets they sat upon.

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

For a brief moment, I appreciate the teapot, the small Sī Tíng Hú. The shape, volume, clay, and firing, all honed and practiced by the craftsperson who created it to be a tool to best brew tea.

Next I turn my attention to examine the tea leaves. Each leaf tells a story. Every color of dark emerald green, russet and red speak to the journey that they’ve endured.

Now, in their unfurling, they sit as a knot untied. As a result of the water’s heat, of time elapsed, of attention given. They’ve become a grip loosened. A moment explored. A heart opened.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Sitting with Discomfort

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.

In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one. 

But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.

Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture. 

But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large. 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable. 

As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.

While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?

While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.

When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture. 

As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.

This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.

This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm. 

In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?

Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.

Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?

In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice. 

She states:

Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.

If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.

Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.

I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253): 

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.

To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy. 

What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.

New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.

In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.

In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.

In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.

As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamono temae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.

Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles. 

The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).

The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.

Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.

While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?

 

****

 

Additional Readings & Resources

As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.

 

1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.

2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.

3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.

4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.

5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.

6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.

7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.

8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.

9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.

10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.

 

Writers & Authors

Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson

 

Articles & Online Resources

Anti-Racism Resource Collection

http://www.resourcesharingproject.org/anti-racism-resource-collection

 

White People 4 Black Lives

https://www.awarela.org/white-people-4-black-lives

 

“A Toolkit for White People” – Black Lives Matter

https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Toolkit-WhitePpl-Trayvon.pdf

 

“Anti-racism Resources to Become a Better Ally” – JDSUPRA

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/anti-racism-resources-to-become-a-36289/

 

Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/antiracist_resources_from_greater_good

 

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Clear and Bright

Looking out my tearoom window, the sky is clear and bright. Peering down upon my wooden tea table, the light casts long shadows. All around me, the world faces sickness and death. All around me, Spring is in full bloom.

On April 4th this year is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié, a day when families in China traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors and the day when green tea picking begins in earnest. While the world has been forced to adjust to the impact of a broad-sweeping pandemic, the traditional, as well as natural cycles still continue.

I offer incense in respect to the dead. I pour cool fresh water into my kettle and set it to boil. I bring together a vintage white porcelain 潮州茶盤 Cháozhōu chápán, 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, and four 品茗杯 pǐn mìng bēi.

The white porcelain is intended to enable the tea drinker to enjoy the unaltered color of the tea liqueur. Alas, in East Asia, white is often seen as the color of death and mourning. The four cups, too, infer this as the number four (四 ) in the Chinese language is a homonym for the word “death” (死 ).

This set up is not typical for me. Rarely do I use four cups. Rarely do I invite the notion of death to my tea table. Yet, it seems fitting. The world is in the grip of death, now seemingly more than ever. However, today is clear and bright. Both forces happening at the same time, not in opposition.

For tea, I bring forth a small handful of 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn. Made up of uniformly curled small leaf buds, this tea was harvested in March of 2019, a week prior to that year’s Qīngmíng festival. Picked this early means that the weather in the mountains surrounding 太湖 Tài Hú in southern 江蘇 Jiāngsū will still be cold.

The young tea buds will still be covered in a coating of silvery hairs (白毫 bái háo). If picked and processed correctly, the resulting flavor of this 清明前 Qīngmíng qián (pre-Qīngmíng) tea will be sweet, complex, and brighter than teas picked later in the year.

Now over a year old, I expect this tea to be a shadow of itself. However, in light of the current state of the world, it will be a taste of life before all of this happened. What will it taste like?

With the water boiled, I rinse the wares, warming them in preparation for making tea. Leaving the lid of the kettle open to allow it to cool down in order to properly brew this delicate tea, I wait and let the heat dissipate. As I wait, I open the window to my tearoom. The sound of birds. Breeze pushing the steam from the mouth of the kettle.

As the water cools, I begin to place the tiny tea leaves into the center of the warmed gàiwǎn, using a thin twig from a willow tree to arrange them evenly along the bottom of the porcelain vessel.

Slowly I pour water along the inner edge of gàiwǎn so as not to directly touch the heap of tea, ensuring that it is able to cool slightly before coming in contact with the tea leaves. The tiny curls of Bì Luó Chūn lift upwards, buoyant for a moment as the water rises in the gàiwǎn.

As I finish pouring water from my kettle, the leaves slowly begin to cascade downwards, spinning and setting at the bottom of the porcelain vessel, occasionally rising and falling again. I leave the lid of the gàiwǎn off and watch this dance play out, admiring how the tiny buds writhe and open, releasing their pale green pigment into the warm water.

A few seconds later and I carefully place the lid atop the gàiwǎn and tilt the cup, pouring its contents from one cup to the next until all are full. I give the gàiwǎn a quick shake and return it back down upon the ceramic surface of the Cháozhōu chápán.

I lift the lid and let the leaves cool. As I place the lid down atop a jade archer’s thumb ring, I marvel in two tiny sprouts that have affixed themselves to the bottom of the lid. Two tiny artifacts from the previous year. Remnants of an early Spring. How much the world has changed since then. How much still remains the same.

I call for my partner to break from her weekend work and join me for cups of tea. The flavor is still vibrant, grassy, intoxicating. Having been stored away for a year, time has not had a dramatic effect on the tiny leaves.

The color of the tea liqueur is bright and clear. A pale green gold against the clean white porcelain. The aroma is sweet like the flowering fruit trees of Spring.

As we finish the first steeping, I continue to brew a second and third.

The leaves open further, unfurling and expanding, offering up a golden hue and lasting flavor.

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

All that is left by the last brew are spent leaves and a fond memory.

As late morning turns to midday, the sun climbs high in the sky, the shadows shorten, the sky becomes clear and bright.

Birdsong beams through canyons of brick and concrete. Breezes bush through blossoms and trees. The scent of tea mingles with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers. Another stick of incense is lit in memory of the dead.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Incense, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Everything Has Its Cycle

IMG_3630Winter is here. As I look out my tearoom window, all evidence points towards this. The tops of trees grow more barren by the day. The sky glows a dull matte grey in all directions. Birds huddle on bare branches and against brick buildings, trying to eek out the last vestiges of warmth. Only a few weeks before, Fall stood resplendent in all its colors. Months before that, sweat collected on my brow. And what now seems like a distant memory, I can recall the first fragrant breezes of Spring. Everything has its cycle.

Sitting in my tearoom, I collect myself around the warmth of my wooden and copper 火鉢 hibachi and the radiant heat given off by my old iron 鉄瓶 tetsubin. As the water inside its metal husk begins to boil I set before me a thin, clay-bodied Yixing teapot. Poetically referred to as a 水平壺 shuǐpíng hú, the shape of the pot is round, balanced, sturdy. It exudes strength and delicacy all in one simple and structured form.

B863EB7C-4430-45D1-B5B8-2EF8A70AAB23As the sound of boiling water climbs to an audible chatter, I open the teapot, set its lid down on top of the crest of its handle’s arc, and pour a measure of hot water into its vacant interior. I warm the teapot and pour the water out, again, to rest the lid atop the teapot’s handle.

23F61326-677C-46AC-A89E-53017AD518ABInto the space now I place a bamboo scoop’s worth of tea leaves. With a tilt of the scoop, they fall into place.

2E3C65E0-BB0B-4571-82DF-004F7B9C7D8FA jumbled mess of wiry fronds. Blades like grass of green and gold.

B41F19E0-1ED0-4350-8F4B-4F91B6540BBBAs it often does, the residual heat of the water begins to wake up the flavor of the tea, sending aromatic wafts of delicate floral notes into the air. This tea, a hand-picked and processed 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá, was harvested in Spring, yet now is joining me to aid in staving off Winter’s chill.

I sit for a while, listening to the water in my iron pot, waiting for the moment it begins to quiet. Steam rises from its spout, coiling like threads, at first just one and two, then more, and then as a steady stream as if it were a column piercing the air. Bubbles break the surface of the water and roil like a babbling source, until it, too, becomes a constant effluence. It is only now that the water has ripened and is finally ready for tea.

551ECADC-FE47-41C8-9815-7322B53E8736I pour the water over the twisted network of tea leaves, being mindful to move in a circular action so as to evenly cover them.

3DBAD72B-9E16-41FE-9E6C-091A7BA14915I place the lid back over the leaves and wait. In this pause I breathe. In this moment, the tea breathes. In and out my chest rises. In and out the tea leaves tumble and unfurl inside the walls of the red clay vessel. Inside my body is an entire system of organs working together to ensure me life. Inside the teapot is a dance of forces, of heat and of unfolding leaves, offering up their flavor. I wait for the moment they settle and absorb their last draught, causing a minute amount of liquid to draw down, back inside the spout of the teapot. I wait a moment more, breathe, and observe the color of the Yixing clay deepen and glow as if it held within it an otherworldly light.

9855E1BF-B4A6-49A0-8827-F4EFF60D3EF8I wait and breathe a last breath and draw the teapot up and out from the clay bowl it is set within. For a moment, as I pour the tea liqueur out, I contemplate on a void. A vast nothingness that exists within the clay bowl where once the teapot sat. The empty space between the branches of the trees where once bright verdant leaves sprung forth. The great hollow expanse of sky that stretches in all directions outside my tearoom window. The emptied vessel of my teapot as I set it back down to play host to another steeping.

FF4F5623-63FD-47C6-8CA0-DCD8801BCBA3And yet in this void there is abundance. In the open cavity of the teapot springs forth a bounty of tea leaves, and held within their once dried skin now exists a sense of life. In the once empty cup that sat beside me is a volume of brightly-colored liquid, and from this rises a complex array of flavors hearkening back to a time and place once thought to be distant and unreachable. As I sit upon the threshold of Winter I am reminded of the blossoming of Spring. On the flat grey of a November day I see the tawny reds and olive greens of Autumn in my teapot. Against the bright white porcelain of my teacup, I see the golden beams of Summer’s sun.

D9E95988-45E4-44BD-90AC-C16FA8928EF1In a world where we get caught within a single moment, how refreshing it is to know that everything has its cycle. When once we feel that we might know all there is to be known, how wondrous it is to be brought back to a place of boundless curiosity. How when we find ourselves in the grip of some unbreakable mental quandary, to scratch and claw against some unknown source of resistance, only to find that the solution was simple and naturally arising. Answers to all we seek are found within us and all around us. In the chill of a Winter’s day. In the scent lifting from a tea leaf. In the hollow of an empty vessel. In the silence that arrives when the water comes to a boil. In the cycles we can observe and in those we cannot.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

In Autumn, the deep emerald green of Summer wanes and fades in exchange for the umber, ocher and amber of Fall. Looking up into the canopy, gilded edges circle each fluttering leaf, and those which have since fallen gather like flecks of gold in the gutters and gullies of the broad city streets.

In the remaining heat of the day, a lone cicada calls out a solitary threnody to its fallen brethren until it, too, becomes a hollow shell, victim to the chill and the gusting winds. Yet, as seasons shift, not all is lost. Instead, as one moment fades, it transforms, and in this change, something new materializes. Fall’s resplendent colors emerge and encourage meditation.

Golden leaves inform my choice to bring out a bright yellow 黃泥 huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Yixing teapot. Similarly, I select a small leaf Taiwanese red tea, the initial aroma of which strikes a harmonious tone with the sweet, fleeting scent of decaying Fall leaves.

Sitting alone in my tearoom, a single grey Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) accompany me. In the air hangs the warm scent of lingering incense and the rising steam from my boiling kettle. In this time, I give myself a moment to pause. So often do we forget to do this; to sit with the change we are constantly caught within.

Peering down at the small yellow teapot, I see this transformation embedded in the pores of its clay body. A subtle shift from gold to brown. Quiet marks upon its skin from every tea it’s ever steeped. A slow metamorphosis to maturation.

The soft glazed surfaces of cup and cooling vessel, crazed and crackled, too, bear the imprint of time. Once immaculate, the patterns laced upon them now look like the veiny remnants of decomposing leaves. In this there is beauty too.

Laying the tea leaves atop a scoop fashioned from old bamboo, they appear dormant, caught in hibernation.

Placed within the belly of the small teapot, they slowly begin to wake, releasing a faint aroma which is sugary and rose-like.

A quick steeping wakes them and they begin to writhe and unfurl. Poured out, the liqueur they produce is tawny and slick.

Decanted from sookwoo into the lone cup, I first savor the color, then the scent, and finally the taste.

Straightforward and satisfying, simple and sweet is the nature of this tea. As I drink, I am reminded of its origin; a gift from a friend years ago, procured from a farm tended by a group of Buddhist nuns. How in these years the flavors have changed. How in this time, the essence of this tea still remains.

The chattering of the iron kettle in my tearoom. The rustling of leaves outside my window. The final notes of incense passing as I continue to brew tea. A parade of clouds in a clear azure sky. The sharp chirping of a cricket off in the distance.

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Filed under Ceramics, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea